Smart home tech needs compelling offering to really catch the eye

The technology already exists to create smart and connected thermostats which offer massive opportunities for energy efficiency as well as empowering consumers more. But does anybody really care?

Domestic disrupter: learning thermostat Nest – recently acquired by Google

Domestic energy use as a topic of conversation at a dinner party is hardly going to win you Socialite of the Year.

Despite how ubiquitous it is, how varied costs can be from household to household, and just how central to our lives energy is, it’s not a topic people want to spend time thinking about.

According to one US survey, the average consumer thinks about electricity for six minutes a year. "Our energy usage is not an exciting subject for most people," explains Yann Kulp, VP of residential energy solutions – eco business at Schneider Electric.

This is problematic. There is hugely disruptive activity going on in the utilities world right now.


While the hard infrastructural side to domestic energy provision – better known as the grid – is a costly, complicated minefield, software technology solutions have come on significantly in recent years and could be integrated into existing networks relatively seamlessly.

Home Energy Management Systems (HEMS) not only offer tailored energy provision and the chance to reduce utility bills and overall consumption over time, some also include partnerships with non-utility vendors of all sorts, and the integration of some “grid-edge” technologies.

Google’s acquisition of learning thermostat Nest, is particularly significant. Their growing access of our online presence can now be complimented by a system that can track one’s movements and activity while at home. (Add this to their existing analysis of consumer’s email and search patterns, not to mention smartphone GPS mapping of movement when not at home, and that’s a fairly comprehensive suite of information on anyone using their services.)

They’re not alone. Apple’s HomeKit is one to watch too, as is Samsung Smart Home.

All very disruptive. But is it yet to capture consumer interest? At this point, only tech enthusiasts who can afford the initial costs associated with HEMS. So the question is, what is going to gain the attention of the rest of us?

"The technology is there now and there are lots of ways to remotely automate your lights and fridge but no one is yet to find a compelling value proposition," explains Harris Levine, partner at customer-centric innovation designers, Ker-twang.

“These devices can be used in so many ways to make life easier: you sit on the couch, and immediately your overhead lights turn off.

“Then there’s the potential for reducing energy usage,” he adds. “There’s a tonne of stuff that can happen behind the scenes to optimise thermostat usage, for example, not to mention new opportunities to give people the info they need to make better energy decisions.

“Any tech companies focusing on getting the design part right will probably succeed in this market. Fundamentally it’s a software and service question, not a technology challenge. But something really compelling will be needed for people to take notice.”

Wiser Air

In the US, energy management firm, Schneider Electric, is soon to launch its own HEMS.

“Wiser Air combines software and hardware innovation in a new value proposition for consumer engagement,” says Yann Kulp.

“What’s already on the HEMS market only really appeals to a few geeks. We have set out to make something consumers can actually see the value of. It’s design-focused and easy to use. We have concentrated on two areas: energy efficiency and demand response.

Wiser Air has an interesting thermostat with a built-in self-learning algorithm that tailors an energy schedule based on people’s everyday lives.

“It’s not motion sensor-based as thermostats are not always located in places where people might walk by,” says Kulp.

“It’s based on interaction. So every time you touch the temperature set point, it learns what you want at various times of the day or night. This is convenient but it also optimises set points so that you can run a more efficient motor.”

In the age of all things digital, so much consumer information can be gathered remotely to improve services.

“Based on meter data, an address and a name, you can build an 80 per cent correct energy model of that home,” says Kelp.

“With an address you can access public information already available on the size and age of the home, how it was built, any major renovations, etc. A name can get you basic info on the number of people in the home, without being particularly intrusive. Then furnaces and fridges, light bulbs and windows could all be more accurately tailored for each residence.”

Big Data

HEMS and the disruption of the domestic energy market is another example of the continued march of Big Data. Its capability continues to show itself in new and exciting areas of our lives.

“What’s different about it in the domestic energy space is that we’re not talking to bankers or big industrial manufacturers who can spend time crunching the numbers,” says Kulp.

“We’re talking about you and me – regular people who don’t have the time, interest or expertise to go do this. So the outcome of Big Data in this space has to be rock solid, simple, and in a consumer language that explains clearly what you do, and how you do it. We have to try and make the execution as easy as possible because while a thermostat controlled by an app thrills me, it is not necessarily a super exciting subject for most other people.”